View From the Cab

Wheat Emerges, Soy Combines Roll, Corn gets Chopped and Farmers Fight to Save Atrazine

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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There's hope on the horizon in the slender blades of winter wheat emerging on Marc Arnusch's Colorado farm this fall. (DTN photo by Marc Arnusch)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) – The wheat seedlings stirring to life across Marc Arnusch's Colorado acreage make him almost giddy with relief. It was so dry in 2021 that nary a wheat seed germinated after fall seeding. The drought that followed led to the difficult decision to abandon much of his winter wheat crop in 2022.

After such a year, every tender sprout seems to carry a message of hope. "Farmers grow things. It's what we do," said Arnusch.

In central Ohio, Luke Garrabrant is hoping the weather settles so he can put some closure on a season of uncertainty after planting pushed well into June. "Our crops have a lot of promise because we did get sustaining rains, but we still have to get them out of the field," he said. "Weather doesn't usually get better as we go further into fall."

Garrabrant and Arnusch have been participating in DTN's View From the Cab project this season. They report on crop conditions from their two very different farming regions each week. The volunteers are also asked to comment on a variety of topics influencing farm life and business.

Read on to learn what is happening on their farm this week. DTN also asked both farmers to comment on proposals by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would bring about significant changes to all products containing the herbicide atrazine, including reducing the maximum allowable per acre application rate. The public comment period on the proposal ends Oct. 7.


Cloudy skies and cool temperatures weren't on Luke Garrabrant's weather wish list this week. "Today (Sept. 28), I thought for sure we'd get to cut beans, but it is cloudy and overcast. The beans are tough. It's been another day of hurry up and wait," Garrabrant said.

Combines are just starting to move in his area with only the earliest-planted soybeans finding their way to the hopper. So far yields have been running above farm average, but he noted the fields being harvested were planted in late April on systematically tiled land.

"They should be some of the best yields we see this year," Garrabrant noted.

Like many farmers, Garrabrant uses the unofficial "tooth test" to get the measure on maturity. "The stems are cutting okay, but the bean itself is still rubbery and tough when you bite on it. The pods are not splitting open as easily as I'd like either," he said.

Frequent pop-up showers have been adding to the uncooperative weather scenario. Those soybeans he has harvested were testing around 14% moisture.

"Late-planted beans are still filling at the tops and getting benefit from the rain, but we are to the point where we need it to shut off and we need to go," he said.

Garrabrant said most of his corn remains healthy, but it isn't ready for harvest. "I checked one of my later-planted fields and it hasn't black layered yet. But I was pleasantly surprised with the kernel size. It has really benefited from all the moisture we've had. However, we need those hard freezes to hold off for a bit," he said.

DTN ag meteorologist John Baranick said it is possible that remnants of Hurricane Ian could find their way to central Ohio this weekend in the form of showers. "It's going to stay cooler there this coming week, with highs mostly in the lower- to mid-60s that are a few degrees below normal for this time of year. A shot of colder air is set to come through behind a strong cold front later next week. Models are only starting to grasp how cold that might be. Forecasts now have lows staying well above freezing, but they could trend lower as we go throughout the weekend and into next week," Baranick said.

Garrabrant hasn't seen any corn harvested in his area. "But it's getting close, and I think farmers are getting more than a little antsy to get at it," he added.

The later harvest gets pushed out, the more that anxiety mounts. That begets another worry -- keeping safe during long harvesting hours. Garrabrant's farming acres are spread out and woven around the outskirts of what is becoming an increasingly urban area.

"When we take soybeans to ADM, we drive right into downtown Columbus. Driving a semi in that kind of traffic is not fun, and I've had drivers refuse to do it. I can't say I blame them. One of my least favorite jobs on the farm is hauling soybeans to market," he said.

Another least favorite, but necessary, thing is negotiating the regulatory complexities of pesticides. Atrazine is a component of nearly every herbicide product Garrabrant uses in corn production. "We have other options, but it would complicate life to not have it or if the label changes are so complex, we can't realistically use it," he said. He depends on atrazine to control grasses and broadleaf weeds.

"Without atrazine, I'd be even more reliant upon glyphosate, which already has resistance issues," he noted.

EPA is proposing a "picklist" of mitigation measures to decrease atrazine runoff from treated fields to protect aquatic plant communities. For field corn, sweet corn and sorghum, these include measures such as planting cover crops or installing vegetative filter strips, grassed waterways or field borders. Farmers would be required to select from one to four of these picklist items depending on atrazine concentration in the affected watershed as well as application rate, crop, region and soil erodibility. Other label changes would decrease the allowable atrazine application rate to 2 pounds of active ingredient per acre per year.

Garrabrant said his usage might be able to fall under that rate. But another of the proposed label changes would prohibit atrazine application during rain or when a storm event, likely to produce runoff from the treated area, is forecasted to occur within 48 hours following application.

"This year with all the rain showers we've had, that's pretty much a no spray order," he said.


Atrazine isn't a stand-alone weed control tool for Marc Arnusch. "We use it to make everything else in the tank mix better," he said.

"It gives us more control on kochia and Russian thistle -- two tough to control and devastating weeds in this region. Atrazine is not a silver bullet, but it gives us more residual control and buys time, so we don't have to work the land as much," he said.

Arnusch sees weed control as a game of strategy. Weeds such as kochia don't emerge at the same time. He uses residual chemistries to gather or herd emergence of new weeds into windows so that other chemistries can be used to surgically remove them.

"We don't have many options for atrazine on some of these problematic weeds, and we certainly don't have anything that is affordable to replace it. Those are two points I've made over and over when writing to EPA on this matter: We have no other options that fit our requirements, and cost still matters. Industry hasn't provided us another option that works here on the High Plains," he said.

The proposed 2-pound application limit per acre would not fit chemical fallow acres, he noted. He believes he could make it work on continuously rotated irrigated acres. "But I'm hesitant to take a one-size-fits-all numerical limit approach to usage. My farm differs from other regions and other states," he said.

While rainfall would seem easy to predict in an area where it seldom rains, even that seems muddy when it comes to implementation. "We usually get our best rain events on a 10% chance. As a farmer, how do you plan? How do you document? What's the recourse if you guess wrong? What happens when you get a freak rain shower event that wasn't forecast? How do we demonstrate to regulators that we made the best decision given the information we had at the time?" he asked.

"EPA may say they are not looking to ban the chemistry, but if the labels are so hard to use and complex to apply at the farm level, it effectively does the same thing," Arnusch added. Atrazine was first registered in 1959, and Arnusch said it feels as if the fight to save it has been going on his entire farming career.

Meanwhile, all intended 2023 winter wheat acres have been planted on Arnusch Farms during the past few weeks. DTN ag meteorologist Baranick said there is a weak storm system parked in the northern Rockies that could bring some occasional rain showers to the area next week.

"They are going to be spotty and it's hard to say how much rain that Keenesburg area might get. Anything more than 0.10-inch out of each rain shower will likely be tough to do, but there's always a chance a thunderstorm might pop up right where they need it. It's just a low probability," Baranick said.

Arnusch is watching those skies. If luck holds and they get a bit more moisture, he might seed a few more acres to winter wheat.

Recent rainfall is what caused Arnusch to head to the field to seed wheat earlier than he might otherwise. However, those early plantings bring up a slight risk of Hessian fly pressure, although it is considered a minor pest in Colorado.

"We don't see it every year, and we try to abide by the fly-free date, but we pushed that this year," he admitted. "If temperatures cool and a few of the predicted weather events happen, it should adequately disrupt the pest."

It is also soil-testing season, and the farm is religious about sampling to estimate fertilizer needs. This year measuring what's left will be particularly prudent after abandoning some acres.

"We don't know what kind of crop we are going to have, so we want fewer resources out there in early fall. We also know we have a high efficiency rate of applying those fertilizers or tank mixes in the spring, and we can better match the crop we anticipate to the fertility plan," he explained.

"It's essentially skating to where the puck is going and not where it is," he said. "This allows us to hold back some of our input investments. We tend to lose some wheat in this state through the winter. We tend to lose some crop to hail in the spring. What's great about wheat is it is flexible enough that we can influence its growth rate and yield later in the season, instead of putting everything out front."

Weeds such as downy brome, jointed goatgrass and feral rye can be problematic in the fall. But Arnusch points to the CoAXium wheat production system developed by Colorado State University as something that has helped fight back against grassy weeds. Identified through traditional wheat-breeding methods, the AXigen gene allows over-the-top use of a Group 1 ACCase inhibiting herbicide. Acres on Arnusch's farm that are not devoted to these genetics generally require a burndown ahead of planting and are scouted to see if a follow-up is needed prior to wheat emergence.

Most of the acres that were fallowed due to water availability have been planted back to wheat because they can be insured, he added. "We've not gone to wheat on any dryland acres. However, we are contemplating planting wheat back into wheat stubble on some irrigated acres, which is insurable," he noted.

Custom silage harvesters from New Mexico rolled onto the farm on Thursday, Sept. 29. Arnusch Farms grows corn for silage on a contracted per-ton basis for a nearby dairy. Chopping begins between 32% and 35% dry matter.

Arnusch is giving thanks he doesn't have to take the crop to grain this year. The lack of moisture caused some delayed emergence and maturity delays that would have pushed full maturity.

His farming area is highly populated and roads full of choppers, silage wagons and trucks only bring more chaos to an already congested situation. "Moving farm equipment is one of the largest safety risks we have," he observed.

"We're also getting into that time of year where we have long hours, dusty conditions, shorter day lengths and just general fatigue. We talk weekly in our farm meetings about safety measures, and we will always talk about it.

"I don't know that being safe ever takes a day off," he said. "In the tractor cab, there's something whistling at you all the time -- something always drawing our attention elsewhere. Add electricity, moving parts and even hydration -- yesterday it was 89 degrees with 4.5% humidity. That can dry you out pretty fast," he noted.

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Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
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